Jennifer Weiner's Memoir 'Hungry Hearts' Tells The Messy Truth About Womanhood
When Jennifer Weiner sat down to write Hungry Heart: Adventures in Love, Life and Writing, she knew she had to share it all — every messy detail about childbirth, parenthood, heartbreak, miscarriage, estrangement, divorce, and more.
"I really decided that if I was going to do this, there wasn't any point in doing it halfway," Jennifer Weiner tells Bustle. "I always go back to this Muriel Rukeyser quote, which is, 'What would happen if a woman told the truth about her life? The world would crack open.'"
Weiner wasn't trying to crack the world open, but she may have scratched up that glass ceiling — the one that prevents women from rising to the top, but also prevents them from talking about the daily challenges of their lives on their journeys up there. That glass ceiling reflects an image of womanhood that says we must all be perfect moms, dutiful wives, successful businesswomen, self-assured yoga-doing goddesses without an eyebrow hair out of place, and fantastic cooks who can get a meal onto the table each night that's both healthy and Instagram-worthy. In the words of Lizzie Bennett: "I never saw such a woman." And neither has Jennifer Weiner.
"People always ask me, the way they ask all women writers and all women anything — actors or scientists or whatever — they ask, "How do you do it? How do you balance work and family?" And I'm like, "I do it the same way men do. I get someone else to handle the housework." And that's the answer," she says.
It may sound like a simple idea, but it's painfully revolutionary. For proof, take a look at the tabloids and magazines that line the shelves in grocery store checkout lines. Pick one, flip it open, and you're sure to see a photo of a glamorous, put-together actress, children in tow, with no noticeable signs of stress, panic, or exhaustion. "You see these pictures of celebrity families and there's no nanny in the picture," Weiner says. "But you know she's there. You know there's no way this woman is making movies 12 hours per day while managing to dress and make home-cooked meals for her children. Someone's helping out, and I think that we as women need to start talking about that."
Weiner may be comfortable now with the idea of getting help, but it took her a while to get there. This is perhaps most evident in the sections of the memoir about her first pregnancy. To prepare for her daughter's birth, she wrote a 10-page birthing plan. Weiner laughs about it now, but at the time, she was dead serious.
For better or for worse, that birthing plan never went into effect, and Weiner learned that you can't plan everything — especially when it comes for your children.
After 36 hours in labor with no pain medication, her doctors told her she would need a c-section because her uterine environment was "decompensating". ("What does that mean? Are the schools getting bad? What's happening in there?" she joked at the time.) After enduring a marathon labor, surgery, and delivery, Weiner was dehydrated and exhausted. She held her child for the first time, eager to breastfeed — to follow through on at least one part of her birthing plan.
The baby wouldn't nurse.
"I had been taught that giving your baby formula was basically the same as giving them Satan's rancid spittle, and I just didn't want to do that," she says. "But, she was bottle-fed, and I felt like a failure."
Parenthood didn't get much easier from there, but Weiner learned along the way that there is only one solution: asking for help when you need it, and acknowledging that you can't do everything alone.
Many years later, Weiner, already the mother to two daughters, suffered a miscarriage. She doesn't shy away from the messier details of her experience in the memoir, a decision she made purposefully. While googling miscarriage during her experience, she says she couldn't find the information she needed — both from a medical and an psychological perspective.
"I want to know the facts, and I want to feel the emotions, but I also just need to know like, "Okay, what's going on here?" [I needed to know] that it wasn't my fault," Weiner says. "Women, we just take so much shame and blame and 'It's all my fault,' and we put all of that on our shoulders and it's hard, and I hope maybe this book will lift some of that for women."
Weiner's work on behalf of women is well-documented, though perhaps not in this exact respect. She's advocated for years for female authors, most notably in a public tiff literary media at large over their frenzied enthusiasm over a new release of Jonathan Franzen. (She coined the term #Franzenfreude to describe the pain of the "multiple and copious" reviews publications bestowed upon Franzen's Freedom.) She argued that women authors didn't get reviewed nearly as often as men, and in doing so, she thrust herself into the spotlight of a contentious issue that no one much wanted to talk about at the time. She didn't emerge unscathed. But a few years later, she was proved correct: Vida released a study that confirmed female authors were reviewed much less often than male authors.
This is a problem for female authors, yes, but also for female readers who have been shamed for reading so-called "chick lit" or romance or anything that is written by women and isn't literary fiction.
"I know many women who read the most literary of literary fiction and read 50 Shades of Gray. There's all kinds of books," she says. "There's all kinds of reasons to read. You're in different moods. You're in different places. I have a problem with women being erased — with women being erased from conversations, with women being erased from the picture, the public view."
This memoir mirrors what we already know about Jennifer Weiner — from her Twitter commentary, from her books, from her public feuds on behalf of female authors. The through-line between #Franzenfreude and The Bachelor live-tweets is one very simple message: women's stories deserve to be told, in all their messy, wondrous glory. Jennifer Weiner is sharing her story, and maybe by reading hers, you'll find yourself feeling a little less alone.